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Bird by Bird Summary and Key Lessons

“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” is a book written by Anne Lamott, which was first published in 1994. 

Quick Summary: It’s a guide to writing and life that has resonated with many aspiring authors and seasoned writers alike. The title “Bird by Bird” is derived from a story Lamott recounts about her brother who was overwhelmed by a report on birds he had to write for school. 

Their father advised him to take things “bird by bird” – essentially, one step at a time.

Bird by Bird Full Summary

Anne Lamott sets the tone by describing her personal journey as a writer, including her inspirations, challenges, and revelations about the writing process. She introduces us to the concept that writing can be a cathartic process and can also serve as a medium for personal growth.


Lamott delves into the specifics of the writing process:

  • Short Assignments: Breaking work into manageable pieces. This concept ties back to the title, suggesting that taking tasks one by one (or bird by bird) can make the overwhelming seem more achievable.
  • Shitty First Drafts: Embracing the inevitability of imperfect initial drafts. Lamott argues that all writers produce bad first drafts, and it’s from these imperfect starts that great work can emerge.
  • Perfectionism: The dangers of trying to make everything perfect. Perfectionism can be the enemy of progress and creativity.
  • Voice: Finding one’s unique style and rhythm in writing. Authenticity is key.

The Writing Frame of Mind

Lamott discusses the mentality required for writing:

  • Looking Around: Observing the world, being present, and using those observations as material.
  • Listening: The importance of quieting one’s inner critic and listening to one’s authentic voice.
  • Jealousy: Managing jealousy of others’ success. It’s natural but can be corrosive to one’s own creativity.

Help Along the Way

The author provides insights on seeking and receiving help:

  • Set Design: Creating an environment conducive to writing.
  • Writing Groups: The benefits of joining or forming writing groups for feedback and support.
  • Someone to Read Your Drafts: The importance of having a trusted person to read and provide feedback.

Publication – and Other Reasons to Write

Lamott touches on the challenges and realities of getting published:

  • Writing a Present: Sharing the joy of writing with others.
  • Publication: While many writers dream of being published, Lamott emphasizes that the journey and act of writing are more critical than the end goal of publication.
  • Finding Your Own Reasons: Understanding personal motivations for writing.

The Last Class

Lamott summarizes her lessons and re-emphasizes the importance of starting small, taking things step by step, and appreciating the journey of writing.

Throughout the book, Lamott uses humor, personal anecdotes, and insights to convey the challenges and joys of the writing process. “Bird by Bird” is celebrated for its genuine approach, offering readers both practical advice and emotional support.

Bird by Bird Summary and Key Lessons

Also Read: Why Does He Do That Summary and Key Lessons

Key Lessons

1. Embrace the “Shitty First Drafts”:

Almost every writer, no matter how accomplished, begins with a rough and imperfect first draft. By expecting this, writers can free themselves from the pressures of perfectionism at the outset.

  • Permission to Create: Giving yourself permission to write badly initially can be liberating. It allows the flow of ideas without the blockade of self-criticism.
  • Iterative Process: The magic often happens in revision. The first draft is simply a means to get started, providing raw material that you can refine later.
  • Overcoming Writer’s Block: Recognizing that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect can also help overcome writer’s block. Just start writing, no matter how disjointed or incoherent the thoughts may seem.

2. The Significance of Observation

Writers are often keen observers. They notice details, nuances, and subtleties in the world around them that others might overlook. This ability to “see” deeply can be a treasure trove for material.

  • Being Present: Engage with your surroundings. Whether you’re in a bustling cafe or a quiet park, immerse yourself in the moment, observe the details, and let your senses guide you.
  • Note-Taking: Always keep a notebook or a digital tool handy to jot down observations, snippets of conversations, or any intriguing details. These can serve as prompts or inspirations later.
  • Depth in Characters: Characters in your story become more believable and relatable when they’re infused with observed traits, quirks, or habits from real life.

Also Read: Mastery Summary and Key Lessons | Robert Greene

3. The Journey Matters More Than the Destination

While many writers aspire for their work to be published and acclaimed, Lamott argues that the process of writing – the self-discovery, the catharsis, the growth – is more valuable than any external validation.

  • Personal Growth: The act of writing allows you to confront your demons, understand your emotions, and grow as an individual.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: Writing for the sake of writing ensures that you’re driven by passion and not external pressures. This often results in more genuine and heartfelt work.
  • Resilience: If publication is a goal, recognize that rejection is a part of the process. By focusing on the journey and the love of writing, you can bounce back from setbacks more effectively.

Final Thoughts

“Bird by Bird” is more than just a guide to writing; it’s a reflection on life itself. Anne Lamott offers timeless wisdom not only about the craft of writing but also about navigating the complexities and vulnerabilities of being human. 

Her candid, humorous, and deeply personal insights serve as reminders that perfection isn’t the goal; it’s the journey, the process, and the lessons we learn along the way that truly matter.

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